The New Britain Rock Cats, Double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, are entering their 33rd and final season. In 2016, the Eastern League franchise will relocate 12 miles to the northeast and compete in a brand-new stadium in Connecticut's capital city of Hartford.
To commemorate this fast-emerging reality, Hartford city officials and members of the Rock Cats' ownership group and front office participated in a stadium groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday afternoon. This stadium, which will be built at an estimated cost of $56 million, is considered the centerpiece of a $350 million DoNo (Downtown North) development project. It will be funded via bonds issued by the recently created Hartford Stadium Authority.
"We're absolutely thrilled to finally be getting started," said Rock Cats owner Josh Solomon, speaking in advance of Tuesday's ceremony. "We've already commenced [construction], actually. Building a park during a Northeast winter is painful, especially in light of how much snow we've been getting.
"Putting Minor League Baseball at the junction of two major highways, 84 and 91, in the capital city is an opportunity for us to expand our fan base and broaden the reach of our sponsors," he continued. "We expected that we would get this done, but any time you're going through the public process there are a lot of obstacles to overcome. At the end of the day the residents of Hartford wanted this to happen. It's a great thing for the city and for the state of Connecticut. Clearly, the trials and tribulations along the way have made it interesting."
Indeed, the journey to Tuesday's groundbreaking has been a tumultuous one. Negotiations between Rock Cats ownership and the city of Hartford to relocate the team were conducted in secret. Therefore, June's announcement that the Rock Cats were planning to relocate to Hartford caught many in the region off guard, including city officials in the Rock Cats' home of New Britain. The announcement also sparked a still-ongoing public debate within the city of Hartford, as community advocates and some city officials question the wisdom of allocating public funds for the stadium as well as for the larger development project of which it is a part.
Solomon, along with key allies such as Hartford mayor Pedro Segarra, maintain that the stadium will serve as the catalyst for a downtown renaissance.
"I think that a lot of people didn't understand how significant this ballpark would be to the overall community," said Solomon. "Initially, the thought was 'This is just a ballpark. They're only operating 71 days a year.' But this will be a state-of-the-art facility, working 365 days a year. ... There will be hockey during the winter, concerts and college baseball tournaments. A host of different activities year-round will enliven that area of Hartford for a long time.
"I think that the other piece of this that folks might not fully appreciate is that this ballpark is meant to be a spark for other development to take place," he continued. "An urban ballpark stimulates a lot of other development in the area, and we see that already happening. A supermarket is being planned, and a local brewery [Thomas Hooker] is moving in. ... I think the business community has been supportive, because they're looking for a place not only to entertain clients, but also a spot for their younger employees to go after work. Interesting new venues and activities will make it so they're not just going to work and leaving the city at 5:30."
As for the yet-to-be-named ballpark, Solomon says that it will "demystify and deconstruct" the traditional barrier between the team and its fans.
"Whereas the press box is usually up on the suite level, away from the fans, we're putting it on the concourse and wrapping it in glass," he said. "The bullpens will be integrated into where the seating is, and fans will be able to sit very close to the field. It will be an intimate ballpark, where fans can interact with the players. ... There will be a 360-degree concourse, a microbrewery, local fare from local merchants, a great state-of-the-art sound system and scoreboard."
The club is launching a name-the-team contest in conjunction with Tuesday's groundbreaking, which will continue over the course of the next 30 days. In addition to playing its last season in New Britain, therefore, the franchise will also be playing its last season under the Rock Cats moniker.
"We're going to pay homage during our last season to the time we've spent in New Britain," said Solomon. "Our fans were fantastic in New Britain, and we're looking to have them move down the road with us."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.